Back to Basics: Taking Care of Your Psychological Self


By Dr. Allison Belger

Serious athletes training for sport often seek the services and guidance of a variety of specialists. From massage therapists, to chiropractors, to running or gymnastics coaches, it often “takes a village” to keep athletes going strong in their sport of choice.  Perhaps you can relate: you may pay a specialty coach or follow certain blogs or consult with experts you hope will propel you to the next level of awesome.

In our pursuit of optimal performance, both in sport and in life, we often forget a critical factor affecting us in profound and complex ways: our psychological profile and functioning. While sport psychologists are increasingly included as part of an athlete’s team of advisors–a good thing–what I am referring to here is a different kind of attention given to caring for our psychological selves.

Many athletes at all levels–including the serious, elite, and everyday–fail to address the fundamental aspect of who they are.  Since our psychological functioning affects everything we do, it behooves us to take a good look at what’s going on inside and to take seriously the impact of our personalities and emotional standing in all areas of our lives.

We hear it all the time: train your weaknesses.  We are told to be sure to attack physical skills that challenge us most, so that we may be well rounded and efficient in our athletic endeavors.  But we sometimes ignore the biggest weakness of all—the one that affects us most profoundly, both on and off the field: our psyches, the foundation of who we are and how we function. Our psychological vulnerabilities are present in all we do–from our training and performance in sport, to our jobs, to our hobbies, to our relationships.

This week’s post is meant to serve as a reminder to explore your psychological self, possibly with the help of a psychologist. If you are struggling with any aspect of your life, do yourself a favor and address the foundation of all you do. Get back to basics. Deal with the forces that make you tick.  Like a smart coach who pushes you to rework the technique of your front squat, deadlift or pushup, a savvy therapist will help you address the most fundamental aspects of who you are.  You’re in this for the long haul, after all, and the sooner you do the work to create a stronger foundation, the more likely you are to achieve your desired goals, both in sport and in life.

Related reading from the archives:

****PLEASE VISIT JUGGLING FOR JUDE to find out how you can support St. Jude Children’s Hospital via a 9-year-old’s soccer juggling skills! Every bit of money helps children with cancer receive cutting-edge treatment at an amazing place.  Thanks for your support!

Let it Flow: The Importance of Losing Yourself in a Pursuit.


I tend to be someone who jumps with a vengeance into projects that interest me. Slightly obsessive by nature (thanks, Dad) and usually outcome oriented, I can bust out work with great intensity when something is important to me.  I’m currently focused on helping our younger daughter with an inspiring summer project called Juggling for Jude.  If you follow me on social media, you’ve probably seen my posts about it. The gist is that Hollis is juggling her soccer ball to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and in just over three weeks, she’s already raised more than $8,000!  No small feat for her small feet (sorry, I couldn’t resist)!

After spending a couple of hours yesterday blasting various social media channels and emailing influential people hoping to help Hollis take this effort to the next level, I realized how quickly time had passed and how unaware I was that I was doing “work.” It was more like my brain and body had been on autopilot; while productivity was great, conscious effort was minimal.

Last week I read a book called The Rise of Superman, which had been given to me by my friend, Steve Crane, whose story I’ve told before. Steve is an ultra runner who has extensive experience with various mindsets that allow him to do amazing things.  The Rise of Superman describes how extreme athletes, whose lives are risked in their pursuits and who accomplish physical feats that seem impossible, access a state of “Flow.”  Flow, a term originally coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, is defined as a state of being marked by total focus and complete absorption leading to an emotional experience of joy, pleasure, and something approaching ecstasy.  Notably, during “flow,” there is a lack of self-consciousness and a lack of awareness of the passage of time.

While achieving a true state of “flow” might be a beneficial goal for the intense or elite athletes among us (a topic for another article), my focus here is how that same lack of self-consciousness and self analysis can also benefit us in our more mundane, less risky pursuits. We may not be scaling mountains, surfing killer waves, or competing at the highest level of sport, but our efforts are still important and meaningful.

When we are caught up in self-criticism, self-doubt, or simply a high degree of self-awareness, we may limit our capacity for productivity. By analyzing our every move (considering, for example, what our co-workers will think of us and our work), we are unlikely to think as freely or with as much focus as we could without these concerns. Similarly, if we consider how we move physically when others are watching us learn a new skill, versus how we might move when we feel confident and uninhibited, the analogy is powerful.

I’ve written before about the downside of conscious processing when it is utilized after it has served its purpose.  The idea, in a nutshell, is that when we are learning new physical skills, we learn best by engaging in a conscious and deliberate analytical process with each step of the movement.  However, once we have achieved a certain level of competency, we need to just let our body do its thing.

This week’s message is to apply this construct to all of our endeavors: In the midst of the deliberate and well-thought-out work we do, we should allow ourselves–at least occasionally—to lose track of time and of our self. This is not the same as getting lost in a great book or an exciting movie; I’m talking about losing yourself while simultaneously being productive in some important way. If you don’t have moments in your life where your passion for a project, work, or an endeavor of some kind takes you away from self-awareness, deliberate analysis, and the passage of time, it might be time to search for something that will.  It’s a powerful thing to experience what it’s like to be inspired–to immerse yourself so fully in something that only later do you realize how involved you’ve been and how much time has elapsed.  Trust in the process, enjoy the “work,” and the positive outcomes will follow, maybe even in ways that far exceed your expectations.

If you’d like to help Juggling for Jude raise money for St. Jude Hospital, please donate here.  Every bit helps!  Thank you!

Related reading from the archives:


The Importance of Being More than Just a CrossFit Athlete or Climber or Triathlete: Don’t Bore Your Friends and Family

momandgirlshugBy Dr. Allison Belger

Pure Joy: 2008 visit from Grandma. Happy Mother’s Day to my wonderful Mom, who taught me, among other things, how to write. 

Since I’m posting this article on Mother’s Day, here’s the tie-in:

1.  As a gift to your Mom, don’t bore her today with talk of your latest PR, unless of course she wants to talk to you about hers.

2.  If you’re a parent, yourself, thank your Mom for being one of maybe three other people in the world who truly care about the tiniest details of your kids’ lives.  Save those details for your Mom and spare your friends.

When I ask people at our gyms to name some of the challenges of being a CrossFit athlete, nine times out of ten a common theme surfaces: how to manage when a partner or good friend doesn’t also do CrossFit, and, therefore, doesn’t relate to one’s passion, commitment, and focus.  CrossFit involves some unique elements that make it especially seductive and potential all-consuming, but it is not necessarily different from any other pursuit in which a person might be fully engaged.  Some of the factors of CrossFit that make it attract one’s full-time interest include regular attendance at the gym, changes in lifestyle choices (bed times, diet, alcohol intake), and a new-found interest in aspects of exercise previously irrelevant to one’s life (think 42-year-old mom of three with no formal sports background suddenly tracking her clean-and-jerk PR’s).  All of these factors can have a profound effect on a person, to whom those closest can’t help but notice.  If your drinking buddy stops going to bars, your relationship is bound to change.  If your best girlfriend stops going to your Pilates classes with you and starts going to pilates in Atlanta instead and starts talking about a movement called a snatch, you might get bored, and your friendship might change.  If your Italian wife no longer cooks your favorite pasta for you and your kids, you might be annoyed.  Now throw into that mix the fact that the friend/wife/partner/buddy also talks incessantly about a whole new group of people who shares his/her interest interests and choices, while you hang on the sidelines, unable to relate to this new and awesome “community.”  It’s easy to see how an unshared passion about, and commitment to, something like CrossFit could slowly but surely create a divide in a relationship, despite everyone’s best intentions.

As I mentioned, CrossFit is not alone in its capacity to absorb a participant’s attention.  Talk to triathletes—especially Ironmen and Ironwomen–about the effects of their training and focus on their close relationships with people who don’t also train.  How about someone who takes on a new position as CEO of a large company and starts traveling for business, necessarily becoming immersed in the company culture and the industry at large?  Might that impact his/her availability for status-quo relating?  How about the ultimate transformation when people go from being non-parents to parents?  Perhaps nothing changes one’s lifestyle, availability for chill time, or capacity to talk about anything remotely interesting to a non-parent more than having a baby.  What, then, happens to friendships with non-parents?  How often do they survive when one party crosses over to the dark side of parental preoccupation?

Life is filled with transitions.  High school ends and friends disperse to colleges.  College ends and friends scatter the country–even the globe–in pursuit of career dreams, graduate school, or to benefit a long-term relationship.  Post-college life often involves the burgeoning of new interests and exploration of various activities, some of which require a great deal of focus and investment of personal resources.  Friendships don’t always weather the storms of change.

When an interest like CrossFit enters the mix and becomes all-consuming, the athlete’s ability to remain available to friends, partners, and even co-workers is often tested.  It seems it is all too easy for the one involved to blame any rift that follows on the other person’s inability to relate to a new-found passion.  I don’t think this is fair or helpful most of the time.  The truth is that a bit of self-reflection might make one realize that one’s involvement with CrossFit or other endeavor is all-consuming and has, in fact, become a barrier of entry to the old version of oneself.  This may be insurmountable to friends and family who were there before.

We all run the risk of becoming absorbed in our current pursuits and friendships, and it behooves us to check in with ourselves to make sure we aren’t so consumed by our passion for what we are doing that we can no longer effectively relate to those who don’t share it.  We are all multifaceted individuals—some more dynamic than others, no doubt, but we can make the most of all aspects of ourselves if we keep all dimensions in check and don’t give our entire beings solely to one pursuit.  Finding the delicate balance between commitment to, and immersion in, a sport or job or other activity on the one hand, and balance and availability for other interests and people on the other hand, is often hard fought.  But it’s well worth the effort.  I can assure you that people who don’t do CrossFit have as little interest in your daily updates about your snatch PR or your muscle-up technique as you might have in the latest developments in crampon gear that enthrall your mountaineer friend.  And that’s exactly how it should be.  If you can’t talk about anything other than one activity, don’t blame your friends’ lack of interest on their inability to relate to your passion.  One person’s passion is another’s source of boredom.  Sensitivity to that is critical if you’re going to be an effective member of any community or relationship for that matter.  If you do CrossFit and only have friends who do CrossFit, or you’re a climber who can only have a conversation with other climbers, or you’re a Vegan and your Vegan lifestyle is simply all there is to talk about, it’s probably time to diversify a bit.

On the flip side, there is also the reality that some people have a hard time supporting friends or partners in pursuits that are new and involve changes.  This phenomenon is multi-determined.  Of course, there is commonly a bit of jealousy that a friend or partner has found something new, exciting, and transformational.  There can also be a simple feeling of being left out or left behind.  Then there are some more complex forces at work.  For example, I often hear of friends mocking more restrictive nutrition choices or calling their friends “boring” or “uptight” because they now choose to avoid alcohol.  It is often the case that when a friend or partner chooses a path of discipline and refined lifestyle choices, the one left behind condescends, as a way of making himself/herself feel better about his/her own choices.  It seems that eating pie in front of someone who no longer eats wheat and sugar might make the pie eater feel inferior or less disciplined, consciously or not.  Having a few drinks with a buddy who no longer imbibes might make the drinker feel self-conscious in ways he/she might not otherwise.  It may inadvertently force the drinker to reckon with his/her own need/desire to drink.  Judgments about a friend or family member’s chosen restrictions may actually be an attempt to get rid of the uncomfortable feelings of self-doubt about one’s own choices—a way of ejecting the feeling that one might be somehow inferior for not choosing to follow the same dietary restrictions or wellness lifestyle choices.

So how can you handle friends and family members who don’t support your choices or question your new behaviors?  With sensitivity, grace, and tact.  Simple and periodic acknowledgments that the changes you have made via your pursuit, be it CrossFit or something else, can do wonders for relationship stability.  Recognizing that you have changed your behaviors but not necessarily who you are can be a helpful reminder to others that your relationship with them can continue.  Careful attention to how frequently you talk about CrossFit or climbing or your new job can stave off the shut-down mechanism in friends who don’t share your experiences.  Being careful to ask about their lives and to maintain a genuine interest in continuing to spend time with them is critical to ongoing relationships.  If you really care about someone, you will respect their indifference to the minutiae of your sport, and you will take care to address their interests with as much zeal as you do your own training.

Of course the cold, harsh reality is that some relationships won’t stand the test of ebbs and flows, especially when one party becomes fully immersed in an interest or pursuit.  This is part of life, but it’s a good idea to be darn sure that something you’re doing in the moment, even if you plan for it to be a long-term endeavor, doesn’t end up losing you more than you’re gaining, as far as relationships go.  As always, introspection and thoughtful attention is critical along these lines.  So, enjoy yourself and revel in your dedication to training or to a job or a certain way of eating.  Just don’t lose hold on other aspects of yourself; surely others will follow suit if you do!